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This was not actually a film in the conventional sense - rather a staged reading of an unproduced film script - but I'm including it in my 'films watched 2015' tag nonetheless, because it was very close, and I know that's where I'll look for this review in the future. The script in question was written by Anthony Hinds, joint architect (along with Michael Carreras) of Hammer's horror heyday, and it was originally intended as the seventh entry in their Dracula franchise, to follow after Scars of Dracula (1970). There's a good blog post here which explains the production context and what happened - basically, Hammer's distributors, Warner Bros., had some assets locked up in rupees in India, and this was intended to be shot on location as a way of unlocking them. In the end, it never came to pass, and the script instead lay forgotten in Hammer's script archive, until the collection was passed to the Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, and examined properly by some experts. The obvious interest of this one was quickly recognised, and arrangements put in place for its first ever public airing in Nottingham last Saturday evening as part of the Mayhem Film Festival.

The event was billed on the Mayhem website as "Jonathan Rigby to narrate long-lost Dracula script from Hammer archive", with the further information that he would be "accompanied by a group of actors" - and quite honestly, that was more than enough for me and I went on that basis. But in practice it really undersold how much effort they had gone to to bring this script to life. What actually happened was that Rigby read all the scene descriptions and directions from the original script, while a cast of seven voice actors did the dialogue, sound effects were provided by a two-man crew with laptops and a mixer, a live sitar player did his thing at the appropriate moments, and occasional visual effects were projected onto a screen in the middle. These included opening and closing credits, as well as a close-up of Christopher Lee's eyes in full Dracula mode whenever his signature character was required to stare piercingly at a variety of young ladies during the story - which happened quite a lot. I took a few photos myself, but this one, which Jonathan Rigby posted on Facebook after the event, best captures it:

Full view of cast and eye by Ashley Bird.jpg

You can also see thirty more from an enthusiastic audience member here, including perhaps the most touching moment of all - the words ‘In memory of Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015’ displayed as part of the closing credits, to great cheers and applause from everyone present.

In short, then, it was a lot like watching a live recording of a radio play, except for the occasional use of the screen. And this was absolutely excellent for me, because I went there knowing that this might be the only time I ever had the chance to hear the contents of this script, but that I was also going to want very badly to be able to revisit and reconsider the story. So I took a note-book, and was able to sit in the second row, right behind the sound crew in the seats of the first row, looking up occasionally but mainly just listening intently and scribbling and scribbling madly across the page, until I had filled up 33 A5 pages in two hours with basically everything that happened in the entire script, including some verbatim dialogue. Meanwhile, as I wrote and listened, an entire film played out, as if by magic, in the inside of my head. I have read a few Hammer scripts before, and their descriptive text usually goes quite well beyond the purely practical. This one was no exception, describing a decaying Maharajah's palace as a ‘gaunt edifice’ whose corridors are lined with faded brocade and crumbling trophies, or speaking of the 'cold light' of the early dawn and someone being 'ground to bone-meal', for instance. So it was very easy to visualise the right sorts of settings from Rigby's narration, while the sound effects gave them the appropriate texture and the voices of the various actors populated them with living characters. Indeed, I am well enough steeped in Hammer's visual style to mean that often I could see in my mind's eye exactly the sorts of sets and costumes they would have used, the camera angles they would have chosen, and the composition of the shots.

All of which was incredible and amazing and breath-taking, because Hammer's Dracula franchise is my favourite film sequence bar none, and yet its last entry appeared in 1974, and I was born in 1976, so I never had the opportunity to see any of its films fresh on first release at the cinema. Indeed, it's some 25 years since I saw a Hammer Dracula film for the first time at all in any context, so I find it difficult now to remember or imagine what devouring one I haven't seen before is actually like. The raw experience of an entirely new Hammer Dracula story, with absolutely no idea what might happen next at any point, was something I never expected to have again - and this performance was the closest I have or will ever come to experiencing that not only on my own at home in front of a video, but live and completely fresh in the cinema with a whole audience around me doing the same. Walking up the cinema aisle at the end of the performance, I found myself overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at the sheer magnitude of what I had just witnessed, coupled of course with the sad knowledge that I may never have such an experience again... Well, that is, unless the same team get themselves together and do a performance of Lord Dracula - the other unmade Hammer Dracula film lying in the CATH archive, which is an 'origins' story linking the Hammer Dracula with the historical Vlad III Dracula. I don't think I have to explain to regular readers of this blog how and why that is basically the story I consider myself to have been put upon this earth to hear.

So, having talked about the performance at the Mayhem Film Festival, I'm now going to review this story qua story, in the way that I have every other Hammer Dracula story on this blog. The obvious difference of course is that you, dear reader, are almost infinitesimally unlikely to have 'seen' it. That means we need to start with a brief plot summary. So, in essence, the opening voice-over explains how Dracula had once lived high up in the Carpathian mountains, but that in the first half of the twentieth century, the spread of civilisation pushed him east, where he has hidden himself away in a remote corner of the world. We then cut straight to the main character, Penny Woods, at Calcutta rail-road station in the early 1930s, and about to catch a train north towards the Himalayas. Her backstory only emerges slowly over the course of the narrative, but eventually we learn that she has come to India on the trail of her sister, Lucy, who went out there to travel after receiving a legacy, and sent back some rather worrying letters about a cave lined with erotic rock carvings (hello, Passage to India!) and a man with burning eyes. On the train, Penny meets a brother and sister musician and dancer, Prem and Lakshmi, who are on their way to a Maharajah's palace to perform for him, and a kindly father-figure type called Babu Mukerjee. When they all reach their destination, it of course transpires that Dracula is living in the Maharajah's palace, beneath which there are mysterious secret caverns used by the Maharajah and his Rani to practise the terrible rituals of their own blood-cult.

From there, things transpire pretty much as you might imagine - except for two surprises. One is that there is no Van Helsing figure, or indeed even a scene at all in which anyone finds out about vampires or explains how to kill them. Dracula is dispatched in a typically dramatic scene at the climax of the film, as you might expect, but not really thanks to anyone being familiar with vampire lore - it's more of a straight-out fight, assisted by some vultures and the sun, and although he does become staked on some wooden spears in the course of the action, it's never made clear whether this is done to him specifically because his opponents know this is how you kill a vampire, or simply because they had wooden spears anyway and made pragmatic use of them. The other is that although Dracula himself is defeated, and we are led at first to believe that the many women he has bitten and / or held captive have been saved, a twist ending reveals a much darker outcome - both Penny Woods and her sister Lucy turn out to have become fully-fledged vampires after all, and the film ends with them and their horde of vampire sisters draining the blood of an innocent victim, while the sun sets over the quiet town below and its unsuspecting inhabitants.

I found this ending in particular absolutely fascinating, because it is not something you could possibly have predicted from any of the Hammer Dracula scripts which were actually produced. Every single one of those ends with the evil of Dracula fully eliminated, and right and good restored to the world. And this is utterly amazing, because until this script came to light, if anyone had set out to write an 'additional' Hammer Dracula script, what they would of course have done is read through the nine which were made, extract their essence, and write something which was true to that. A sort of triangulation exercise - or perhaps, more accurately, a decagonalation exercise. But while this actual additional Hammer script is recognisably of the franchise, it is no pastiche of its stable-mates, adhering safely to the established tropes. And actually, nor should we ever have expected it to. This script was originally planned for production after Scars of Dracula - and you could not possibly predict the film which actually was made after Scars (i.e. AD 1972) from any of its predecessors either. Nor, indeed, could you have predicted Satanic Rites from AD 1972, or Seven Golden Vampires from Satanic Rites. No, the Hammer Dracula franchise was triumphantly creative and unpredictable right up to the end, as this script only makes all the more clear. And this is incredibly liberating for those of us who like to build yet more stories for the Hammer Dracula in the worlds of our own imaginations. There really are no limits or constraints - not if Hammer themselves could end a story with a newly-fledged vampire cult poised and ready to unleash its evil over the world.

And let's not pretend that it wasn't personally thrilling for me, too - first to discover that this script had a main character called Penny at all, but then also to have her end the film as the high queen of a new vampire cult too. The only thing which convinced me I hadn't actually gone mad and started hallucinating my perfect fantasy Dracula script at that point was the fact that of course my perfect fantasy Dracula script would not kill Dracula off at at the end, but allow him to walk off hand in hand with his beloved Penny into the moonlight. If I can't have that, though, a character called Penny who gets bitten by Dracula, becomes a vampire and survives the end of the film herself is a pretty close fantasy-second. And Penny as a character is just amazing even without that! When we meet her for the first time, she is already travelling entirely on her own through India in the 1930s, thinks nothing of jumping onto the back carriage of a train which is already pulling out of the station, later proves to be quite willing to explore dark and mysterious caves entirely on her own in the middle of the night, and is generally awesome, independent and adventurous to a degree which (again) you would struggle to predict from any of the female characters in the rest of the Hammer Dracula franchise.

In fact, although Penny does get bitten by Dracula and is clearly under his thrall at that point, and from then onwards even when he is not present, she actually manages to resist his will at a crucial moment towards the climax of the film. Just as he has lost all his existing servants, encounters her in an alley and tries to enlist her as his latest assistant, she responds by telling him directly "You have not the power" (not quite "You have no power over me", but so close!), and by so doing more or less directly drives him to the flight across the roof-tops and climactic fight scene which ends in his death. That doesn't happen in any of the existing Dracula films, either - Dracula defeated by his latest victim throwing off his spell and turning against him, all by herself and with no other man in sight, let alone attempting to help her. So it turns out that all along there was a Hammer Dracula script with a feminist icon as its main character - a feminist icon called Penny who becomes a vampire. I only wish it hadn't taken me until I was 39 years old to find that out.

So we have an unusually strong central female character here, but what of Anthony Hinds' depiction of India and its people? Well, it's not perfect. The opening voice-over's conceit that Dracula had fled east to India to escape the spread of civilisation pretty much makes that clear. But actually, once the story proper gets going, things immediately get enormously better, for one simple reason - there are are only really two white characters, Penny and Dracula. (Penny's sister, Lucy, does also appear as an off-screen voice in Penny's memories of her worrying letters, and is eventually discovered in the caverns under the Maharajah's palace, but it is a very minor role.) Everyone else is Indian, and because the script was designed to be shot on location in India, that means we can be confident they would have been played by Indian actors - not white people in black-face (which in total fairness to Hammer, they very rarely did anyway - but not absolutely never). What this means is that the Indian characters are rich and real and three-dimensional. Some of them are innocent (Lakshmi), some heroic (Prem), some ordinary but kindly (Mukerjee, his wife), some corrupt (the Maharajah, the local police inspector) and some downright evil (the Rani, her chief acolyte) - but because there are so many of them, they rise well beyond stereotypes and are all individual characters of their own with real agency and important contributions to make to the story. Apparently, this was one of the factors which made CATH and the Mayhem Film Festival team decide to produce this story, and find locally-based actors with an Indian background to play the parts, instead of doing the 'origins' story Lord Dracula, which I am told is considerable less sensitive in its portrayal of gypsy characters.

There's possibly also a post-colonial critique of British rule in India embedded into the story. I do sometimes struggle to remember when watching these films that we are not actually supposed to be cheering for the vampires, but forcing myself back into that mindset and remembering that Vampires = Bad, a pretty clear moral perspective on the British in India does emerge. Dracula may nominally be Romanian, but when played by Christopher Lee he is of course also utterly British, and the scenario of having him squatting parasitically in the palace of a Maharajah, controlling (as he himself states at one point in the dialogue) the local authorities and literally draining the life-blood from the local people makes for a pretty critical portrait of the British Raj's vampiric approach towards its subjects. The twist ending has a similar effect, in that even after Dracula himself is defeated, the two actual British characters in the story (Penny and Lucy) have become vampires themselves, and are last seen draining the blood out of one of the two surviving major Indian characters, while the other sits unsuspecting at his dinner-table in the valley below, and we suspect is unlikely to have a very happy future. Maybe with the hindsight of the 1970s this was even intended as a comment about how little practical difference overthrowing British colonial rule really makes once a power-imbalance has been engrained - Dracula (direct rule) may be gone, but the British (Penny and Lucy) are still exploiting the Indians in other ways? I don't know how conscious or not any of this might have been on Anthony Hinds' part, but Hammer were quite capable of political analogies and post-colonial critique, as I hope my comments here on The Mummy (a Jimmy Sangster script) indicate.

Meanwhile, the potential opened up by shooting on location, and perhaps also the remit of spending as many rupees as possible because they would be wasted otherwise, clearly spurred Anthony Hinds on to some heady flights of spectacle and visual imagination. As written, the script calls for at least two massive crowds, a packed steam train, people wading in the river Ganges, a religious festival, period cars driving through open landscapes, and generally a great deal of colourful costumes and rich sets. How much of this would have translated into on-screen reality, we can't be sure - I've noticed quite a disparity before between what an enthusiastic Hammer script describes and what was actually filmed in practice. But they always were good at making a small budget go a long way, and indeed we did get this sort of landscape spectacle in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires a few years later, but just in China instead of India.

Hinds was also clearly looking to up the nudity and gore stakes. Indeed, this is what we should expect at this point in the Hammer Dracula series. Scars (also a Hinds job) had already featured two (indirectly depicted) sex scenes, a naked bottom and a woman's body being hacked up with a meat cleaver and thrown into a bath of acid. On the sex front, Thirst includes a lot of stuff about erotic rock carvings, two erotic dance scenes (clearly written to be highly objectifying), and two scenes of women waking up in beds, naked and confused. And on the violence front, we have two scenes of live women being impaled to death on a spiked lingam stone, one of a man being crushed to death under the massive wheels of a religious chariot, and a death scene for Dracula which involves him being half-pecked to death by vultures before falling down onto a dozen up-turned stakes and then finally being put out of his misery by the sun. Hinds also included a scene of Dracula lapping up the blood of an already-dead person from the floor, much like a similar scene which production stills reveal was shot for Scars but no longer survives. Presumably, some of the same sort of material in Thirst would have fallen foul of the censors in a similar way before it reached our screens - but maybe not that much by this stage in the series!

We should probably also assume the script would have undergone editing down for length during the production process, since the reading took two hours and no Hammer Dracula film is longer than 90 minutes. I suspect it would have been redrafted several times to enhance the dramatic effect, too. I can certainly see ways in which it could have been improved, and the one which struck me hardest was that Dracula's character suffers somewhat for having no big driving motivation other than to drink a lot of blood, ideally from beautiful young women. This is in sharp contrast with most of the other films in the sequence, where his aspirations are always bigger than that. Dracula, Risen, Taste and (after this) AD 1972 all give him a strong and specific revenge motivation; Prince has him reasserting his claim over a particular girl he feels he has been robbed of; and Satanic Rites has him hell-bent on destroying the whole of humanity. In all cases, this suffuses the films with a constant creeping sense of menace even when Dracula isn't on screen, because the audience knows that even if things seem jolly and fine at the moment, Dracula he will not stop until his need for revenge / possession / destruction is fulfilled. It is only really Scars (also a Hinds script - though so are Risen and Taste) which doesn't provide Dracula with a single driving motivation in this way, but rather paints him more as a passive (though certainly deadly) feature of a world in which other people's story arcs are playing out. But that script gets away with it because a lot of people cross him during Scars (the villagers, Tania, Paul, Klove), so he almost always has at least a short-term motivation of punishing those people which provides a reason for him to get his rage on.

Thirst might just about have worked on the same basis, but I'm not as sure. In Thirst, there is a tension between Dracula and the Rani - she resents the bite-marks he leaves on what she sees as victims for her blood-cult; he scorns the cult, telling her she knows nothing of blood's true life-giving properties - and towards the climax of the story this leads to him killing her, fleeing the wrath of her angry acolytes, and eventually dying when his escape plans fall apart. But this only emerges pretty late in the story, so the sense of driving menace which he usually creates from the start is missing. In fact, he comes across as a something of a dilettante, living an all-too-easy life while his servants procure beautiful dancing girls for his blood-drinking pleasure. Then again, I've long nursed a theory that for most of the series, what we see of Dracula isn't really him at his normal self, but him in extremis, constantly driven by the need to respond to immediate and major threats to his existence and / or dignity. I think we get a glimpse of his more 'normal' self at the beginning of Dracula (1958) when he first greets Harker, and perhaps see something of it in Scars too, when he similarly plays the host to Simon and Sarah - but I've always wanted to see a bit more of this Dracula, and it is possible that Thirst might have delivered it. The fact is, though, that as the script stands the polite, gentlemanly dialogue which we get in those scenes from Dracula (1958) and Scars isn't really in place here either. Perhaps some rewrites would either have made the tension with the Rani clearer from the start, or made more of Dracula's capacity for suave urbanity - but the reality as we have it is that his characterisation isn't as strong or as interesting as it could have been.

Still, a lot happens between script and release, and a lot of this could have been improved upon with good performances, and Christopher Lee's usual habit of vetoing certain lines and inserting others of his own. And for me I think the characterisation of Penny and her dark twist ending would have been more than enough anyway to cement this as a one of my favourite entries in the Dracula franchise if it had ever been produced. A trickier question is - given that what was actually made instead of this was my beloved Dracula AD 1972, would I actually have been willing to sacrifice that for the sake of having The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula instead? I think the answer to that one might be 'no', in spite of the wonderfulness of Penny. But having both would have been very acceptable indeed - and at least, now this script has emerged, we have something pretty close to that.

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